In the Middle Ages, when glorious cathedrals were built with hand tools and muscle labor, a man who wanted to be a mason would apprentice to a master mason while he was still a boy. He would work his way up from doing menial labor to support the skilled workers, to learning the skills of the craft, to being competent to work on his own. At that point he would be called a journeyman, and he might journey around to work with other masters than his own, to learn new things, to hone his skills. Eventually, he would produce a work, a master piece, that qualified him to be called a master and to take apprentices of his own.
This three-level system of training, in which one master taught small groups of students, applied for hundreds of years in a wide variety of professions. It was paralleled to some extent in other professions, such as the progress of a monk from novice, to junior brother in simple vows, to senior monk in life-long solemn vows. When the symbolic system of masonry passed from the hands of people who actually raised buildings into the hands of educated men with time to speculate on its meanings, somewhere in the early eighteenth century, Freemasonry retained those three levels of training, its three degrees.
In the late nineteenth century, Freemasonry unexpectedly shared its lodge system of government and its three basic degrees with a number of alternative spirituality movements. As a result, the Wiccans, Witches, and Druids of twentieth-century neopaganism usually underwent training programs that involved three degrees. Freemasons speak of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraft, and Master Mason; the Druid order to which I formerly belonged called its degrees Apprentice, Companion, and Adept. There’s a basic commonality in the descriptions of the degrees across traditions: The first degree is about learning the system; the second degree is about proficiency in working the system; and the third degree is about teaching and embodying the system.
If you have any interest in neopagan witchcraft or Wicca, and have contact with other interested people, for more than about a month, you will start to hear complaints about the proliferation of “Wicca 101” books and the dearth of advanced materials. Month after month, year after year, new books for beginners in witchcraft get released, books about the first degree, while if books on second or third degree topics are being written, they’re not getting published. And if you peruse a few large bookstores, or the websites of a few prominent publishers, you will see that the complaints are justified.
I achieved First Degree in my Druid order, but not Second. I could never quite get myself organized to tackle it, which in retrospect was probably a sign that I should have given up on the druid system much sooner than I did. Sometime last year, I began to think about the three degrees and the teachings of the Church and to ask myself, What would it mean to be a second-degree Christian?
It’s not that the Church doesn’t have equivalents to the degrees, at least theoretically. Ascetical theology speaks of three stages in the spiritual life: purification, illumination, and unification. The devout soul moves from being purged of sins and vices, to being illuminated with knowledge and love of self, others, and God, finally to being united with God. At times people in these three stages were spoken of as beginners, proficients, and perfects, although I think the Cathars rather ruined that for everybody else in touting their celibate, vegetarian perfecti as superior to the not-very-celibate or self-denying Catholic priests of their day. Even the common, external progression from baptism to confirmation to vocation (marriage, monastic life, holy orders, or some combination of the above) suggests the three degrees, although I think the analogy is a false one.
In my early twenties, while I was working at a Christian bookstore, I came across a book that took seriously the idea of what you might call second-degree Christianity. That book was Christian Proficiency by Martin Thornton, a priest of the Church of England. It made a deep and permanent impression on me, and it must have done so for other readers as well because it’s still in print. For Thornton, a proficient was any Christian who was willing to embrace a Rule of Life and commit to regular Eucharist and Sunday worship, daily formal prayer (such as Morning and Evening Prayer from the Prayerbook), and some kind of private prayer. To make Christianity a practice rather than just a theory of life made one a Proficient.
I decided last year that I was going to take myself seriously as a Proficient, a Christian of the second degree. I was out of practice, so to speak, but I was far from a beginner in the way. I had a large knowledge of theology, spirituality, Church history. I had some experience with living by Rule. And I had, and have, a genuine desire to pray more, pray better, pray more deeply than I ever had before.
Being second degree means showing up at church on Sundays and holy days, regardless of how I feel. (Usually this is not a challenge, as I actually feel better *after* Eucharist than I did before.) It means saying the Office regardless of how I feel, and doing it with some solemnity. I have always liked to have candles and incense with daily prayer, and recently I began wearing a dedicated shawl during times of prayer, which makes me feel I have a vestment. I do spend more time in private, informal, open-ended prayer than I used to, though still not as much as I want to. (Sometimes one gets sucked into the Internet, or the newest levels of Angry Birds.)
Perhaps the hardest thing, strangely enough, has been carrying out my decision not to read “Christianity 101” books any more. Today, for example, I finished a book on Julian of Norwich that I seem to have begun back in November of last year. It was only around 275 pages long (and that includes a copious portion of notes), but there were times that reading it was like banging my head against a brick wall. At times I actually moved my lips while reading it, or read parts of it aloud. I never blamed the author, just my failing eyes and my tired middle-aged brain. But today I finished it, I felt like I understood it, and I began reading another scholarly Julian book that started life as a doctoral dissertation. I’ve been reading and studying Julian for thirty years; I don’t need any more Julian 101 books. I need to have the courage of my experience.
What topics can you stop reading introductory-level books about? What do you need to read, or do, or change in order to work the system, to make your Christianity a practice and not just a theory? How can you solemnize your commitment to prayer, peace, justice and love? And what might it look like, feel like, be like, for you to be third degree, to know some kind of unity with God? I think more of us in the Church need to step up, light our candles and put on our prayer shawls or whatever feels right, and start answering those questions. Out loud.